Interview: Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat (‘The French Dispatch’) on his collaborations with Wes Anderson and his favorite film score of all time
Composer Alexandre Desplat is commonly referred to as the busiest man in Hollywood, churning out score after score, year after year. And they aren’t ordinary ditties, either. Desplat has circled in rarefied air for a couple decades now, the go-to favorite composer for many directors such as Wes Anderson, George Clooney and Guillermo del Toro, among others. Desplat has been Oscar-nominated eleven times, and has won twice, for his memorable scores for Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and del Toro’s The Shape of Water.
Since he started writing for English-language films in 2004, he has scored nearly 100 films, an average of six films a year. He has no doubt scored some of your favorites of the past twenty years, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Parts I and II, The Tree of Life, The Ides of March, Zero Dark Thirty, Godzilla, The Secret Life of Pets, Little Women, Midnight Sky, and Best Picture winners Argo, The King’s Speech and The Shape of Water.
Despite his wide-ranging output, it is Desplat’s work with writer/director Wes Anderson that stands out among his credits, as Desplat has scored every Anderson film since Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. Their most recent collaboration, The French Dispatch, has wowed critics with its scope and intricacy, and Desplat’s minimalist and Dada-inspired score complements Anderson’s romanticized vision of postwar France beautifully.
I had the opportunity to talk with Desplat about working with Anderson, as well as other things, including what influenced the sound of The French Dispatch, whether the French setting inspired a more personal connection for him, what his favorite score is and what music he likes to listen to in his free time.
Catherine Springer: You’ve worked on so many Wes Anderson films. This one feels like his most ambitious film, and yet the score feels almost minimalist. How was your approach to it?
Alexandre Desplat: I agree that this is one of the most minimal scores that I’ve written for Wes. We were talking this morning with Bob Yeoman, the photographer, about the incredible craftsman that Wes is—the imagination. He’s a fearless director. The music almost became like a cake that you can’t swallow so we kept it very sparse and simple. I hope not simplistic, but very simple in terms of recurring motifs and instrumentation. You know, there’s something about this film, which is, to me, a highlight of Wes’s. When I read the script the first time, I mentioned to him that it’s his most Dadaist film because there’s no almost no logic. There’s several stories, you jump from one character to another. Dramatically, it’s a real challenge. It’s really brave to do that in cinema, and there aren’t many directors who can do it, but he does. And it’s because of that lack of logic. There is a logic, of course, in the film, but you know what I mean. For this same reason, the score was not easy to write because it’s not a story that goes chronologically, it jumps and follows the flow of the film. It was challenging because it had to be minimal but also surprising. And that brings me back to Dada, and being provocative in the way we assembled instruments together or repeated patterns or broke the way of traditional arrangement. Orchestration would work, you have the banjo playing all the time and drums playing all the time to make a song, but the way we view these traditions is totally berserk.
CS: From a layman’s perspective, when I was watching it, I noticed the first story seemed to feature piano and the third one features a violin. Was it intended to have these single instruments be a central motif for each of those and why did you choose these instruments?
AD: The piano for sure was very important because anything that we would try at the beginning of the film, especially with the Rosenthaler character, anything we tried was too–it’s happening in this huge prison room where this madman is painting something abstract in total silence, so any fully organized piece of music seemed wrong, it seemed inappropriate, it seemed to not be connected to the film, so by using just a single piano, very slow, strangely bluesy, without much swing, allows the images and the characters to breathe. Otherwise, it would have just been too stuffy.
CS: It does feel like the screen is just chock full every moment, there’s always so much going on. Did you feel like you needed to balance that?
AD: Absolutely. Visually, it’s incredibly rich. But there’s dialogue too, pages of lines for the actors, long, long, long pages of dialogue. And so where does the music come in? Why is there any music? So it has to be taken into consideration that the soundtrack was already really full. You have to be very transparent, full of air. In between the notes, between the instruments, that’s why it’s not a huge instrumentation. And that’s why when an instrument starts to play, it has its own color and voice. It stops, then another instrument comes in, with his own voice, so it allows the ear to accept what is playing, otherwise it would have been impossible to even hear the music.
CS: Do you feel that there’s a particular instrument that works best for Wes Anderson films more than any other?
AD: I would rather say it’s a combination of instruments. Some instruments are recurring, like the mandolin, the banjo, and the piano. But, for each film, we try to create a soundtrack that has different sound. For Mr. Fox [Fantastic Mr. Fox], it was a very small symphony orchestra where there was only one piece of each section and very small percussions and then very little, tiny banjos, tiny mandolins, everything was tiny! And on Isle of Dogs, even though they are puppets, what you see on the screen is vast, you see this grand, huge perspective, depth of field. So we needed a louder, bigger sound. That’s why we have the Taiko [drums], we have the male voices, the saxophones. So, for each film, it’s more of a combination of instruments. I believe that if I went to Wes tomorrow and said, “let’s take 17 oboes,” he’d be excited. He’d be the only one [laughs] because the sound of that would be so weird.
CS: Because this film is set in France and is supposed to feel like a French film, was it a bit more personal for you?
AD: Don’t forget it’s France through the eyes of an American from Texas. It really is Wes’s own vision of France, especially France from the past. So there are some things that I can refer to as a Frenchman, like the café, the Vespa that they use. The streets of the city and some shots will remind me of certain towns, but aside from that, so much is the vision of an American and I can’t really say that I tried to put the French sound in. Maybe the only piece of French influence there was the solo piano and the piece called “Obituary,” which was the obituary of Bill Murray’s character, which might be more French than the others but, to be honest, it feels more bluesy and jazzy to me than French.
CS: Which of your scores feels the most personal to you?
AD: Julie and Julia.
CS: Why? Because of the French food?
AD: Because we were really trying to play a bit more into the cliche of the 50s in Paris, with a beautiful accordion player—to really play up that traditional feel of Paris.
CS: The music in a film is really what controls the audience’s emotions. Does that require a close working relationship with the director, to make sure you understand their vision and you both are on the same page?
AD: Definitely. Making movies is artwork. It’s a bunch of people who together put a piece of art together. It’s very different from being a free artist, like a painter or sculptor or photographer. It’s me plus many other people. It’s always been in my head since I started writing for films, that I was just one element. And you always have to remember that. You don’t write music for films to show off and to show your ego and splash the cinema. Maybe I work so much because I always try to define not only where the music starts or ends, but also what sounds and what range, considering the voices of the actors, considering their movements, and their lines. So I really try—and more so as I grow in my craft–to be inside the film, not outside of film. Which means if I’m inside, I can dance with the film, I can vibrate with the film. It’s hard to explain because it’s very intuitive. It’s a mix of intellectualization of what the movie means, is, has become, was meant to be and how the characters go through that story that I’m working on. But yeah, it’s really something organically intimate.
CS: I understand that you don’t like to start until you have the completed film, even though you are always one of the first ones to get a copy of the script, is that sort of what you’re talking about?
AD: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I like to be able to dive into the images. That’s why I chose to be a composer very early on. I always wanted to be a film composer because I love cinema. I didn’t choose to be a film composer because I like scripts! You know what I mean? I could have, I could have gone into theater, where the text is more important, but the only thing you have to rely on is the text. A few months ago, I had to write some themes for the new Wes Anderson film, some motifs for him to play on set. Maybe it’s because the relationship with Wes is so strongly structured that I can do that. But with many directors, you don’t know what it will be, from one film to another–how the camera will move, how the actors will deliver–so we always prefer watching the film before I can be inspired. People ask, “what inspires you to write the music for a film?” It’s the film itself.
CS: You’ve called yourself the busiest man in Hollywood. You’re always working. You have a few going at a time?
AD: No! No, no no no.
CS: Only one at a time?
AD: Oh, yes. It’s just me and myself, there’s no way I can jump from one project to another one. I do one, I stop, then I start another right away.
CS: John Williams has famously said that he doesn’t like to listen to music when he’s not working. Do you like to listen to music in your free time or do you enjoy the quiet?
AD: It depends on the hours and the moment and where I am. For example, yesterday before the concert that we were giving, there was no reason for me to listen to any music, we were going onstage 15 minutes later, but, for some reason, I wanted to listen to some Miles Davis and I played some Miles Davis in my green room. Why? I don’t know! At that moment, I wanted to hear some Miles Davis, which I love. I wouldn’t spend a day listening to music though. Of course, I’ve done that a lot since I was young, I listened relentlessly since I was a child. But now I listen in moments. But when I want to read a score–a Mahler or Stravinsky or Prokofiev—then I take a score to listen to the music or I go to a concert. Otherwise, it’s different, yeah.
CS: Who is your favorite composer living or dead?
AD: Let’s say Ravel.
CS: Other than one of your own what is your favorite film score?
AD: That’s a hard one too, but, The Misfits.
CS: Why do you love it?
AD: It’s a combination. It’s not just a score. I guess it’s how the score plays with the film. And how the score, written by Alex North, swings from a big band to a symphony orchestra. The melody is absolutely heartbreaking. [sings a little of the melody] And when you know, I mean, the aftermath of what happened to these actors after The Misfits is just so brilliant, it’s almost a premonition of Alex North to everything. This is such tragic music for three actors who will tragically die soon after.
The French Dispatch is currently in theaters from Searchlight Pictures.
This interview has been edited for brevity and content.
Photo: Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock